It’s just after daybreak on the River Li in Guangxi, Southern China, and we’re pushing our bikes onto a squat river barge that will take Pete and me down this brown, slow-flowing river to the ancient village of Xing Ping.
We hoist the bikes on the roof and take our places on the deck which is only ten centimetres from waterlevel, so we take off our sandals and plunge our feet into the river which is barely cooler than our body temperature.
Our fellow passengers are bound for markets along the way, sitting with baskets of ducks and bundles of dried fish and chatting to each other in melodious Mandarin which we wish we could understand. I try not to notice the five black puppies crammed into a wire cage, also bound for market as a delicacy.
We’ve been told this trip beats going to Beijing or looking at the terra cotta warriors of Xian, so we’d left Hong Kong two days before, chugged up the Pearl River on a chicken ferry and endured twelve hours on the bus ride from hell to reach this point. But looking around us, it’s definitely been worth it.
For a brief time everything on the shore is clear, green and vivid, before the clammy heat of the day slowly blurs everything into a misty blue haze. The banks are overgrown with thick fronds of bamboo and huge trees, and behind them the karsts rear up like thick fingers of stone.
These karsts are limestone oddities, rough bald monoliths which rise up hundreds of feet from the greenery below and are visited by excited geologists from all over the world. This was a favourite part of the country for the old Chinese artists who painted scrolls featuring the rocky karsts, the bamboos and the pagodas, although sadly their delicate artwork has been reproduced and copied so much that these scrolls have been reduced to Chinese kitsch.
Dotted along the banks we see old stone houses, abandoned temples and tall pagodas in various stages of ruin. There is an immensely peaceful feeling of timelessness and if it wasn’t for the slow throb of the motor we could be in the China of a thousand years ago.
Ten minutes after casting off, all the other passengers are dozing, lulled by the crushing heat and oblivious to the fantastic scenery which becomes more beautiful with every bend in the river. We drift past fishermen standing up in their tiny sampans, rhythmically casting in finely woven nets and immediately pulling them out of the water to pick off tiny fish no bigger than a little finger. .
Several of them have fresh-water cormorants perched on the front. These feathered slaves are fitted with a tight ring at the base of their neck and then trained to swim after a shoal of fish and catch several before returning to regurgitate them up on the deck. At the end of the day their owner removes the ring and they’re allowed to dive and swallow their own supper.
At one point harsh loudspeakers rudely break the spell, and we’re overtaken by a brightly painted double- decked barge. We can hear squeals of joy as our own ramshackle barge becomes the focus for a hundred cameras and videos.
This is the official government tourist barge which starts upriver at Guilin, bound for Yangshuo and a “western lunch” before being bussed back to their air conditioned hotels. It sounds as though the trapped passengers are being told in English, Cantonese and Mandarin exactly what they’re looking at along every inch of the way and we wave languidly at these poor suckers, feeling very smug at our superior choice of transport.
We make five- minute stops at odd wooden jetties along the way and our fellow passengers disembark and disappear into the greenery. Some hours later we tie up at Xing Ping.
It’s like stepping back in time. This two- thousand year old village looks as if nothing has been built here since the first stone houses. The only signs of the twenty-first century are the ubiquitous TV aerials, but there are no visible shops, no posters or billboards, no rusting piles of old cars, no crumbling cement – block houses and no old styrofoam containers.
The rest of what we have seen of China, outside of Hong Kong, could be described in a few words: polluted, filthy, jerry-built and charmless. But Xing Ping, untouched by this progress, is gorgeous.
It’s lunch time, with hardly a soul about. We pedal lazily around the narrow unpaved streets admiring the stone houses. Their brown clay tiles match the walls and some have rounded gables on the end walls. Pasted on every door there are brightly- coloured pictures of Door Gods and above them, a small mirror to deflect bad spirits. Most walls also sport bright red paper stuck on the wall with two Chinese characters meaning “Abundant happiness.”
Mao tried to sweep away these signs of Chinese believe and tradition, but they stayed lurking under the carpet until his death and have burst colourfully back.
A man can only take so much culture.
“I’m starving,” says Piet.
This is a problem – so far we haven’t seen a single shop that sells edible food, only a Chinese medicine shop with big glass jars of dried roots and pieces of bark.
Then we get lucky. We peer into an open door and discover several wooden tables and a counter, with the owner slumped on a stool, fast asleep in the midday heat.
She wakes up and obligingly rattles off the menu in Mandarin. We smile helplessly and walk over to a covered wok on a gas plate. This look great, fragrant rice with odd bits and pieces and we indicate approval. She brings us a plate of this, which is delicious whatever it is. We’re dying for a cold Tsing Tao but there doesn’t seem to be a frig anywhere so we settle for lukewarm fermented tea in tiny cups. She brings the thermos full to our table.
While we’re eating, using chopsticks to show we’re old China hands, three men, obviously regulars, walk in and chat her up. The conversation goes backwards and forwards and suddenly she bends over a wire basket in the corner and yanks out a long snake, holding it by its head and waving it about for their approval. Then she takes the hapless reptile to the counter and chops off it’s head , skinning it in one swift motion while it’s still wriggling convulsively.
Ahead of us, we have thirty kilometres of cycling to Yangshuo, and we reluctantly start cycling in the afternoon heat.
“Only mad dogs and crazy cyclists,” I remark, but Piet reckons they’ve eaten all the dogs, we’re alone here.
The narrow rural road sometimes follows the River Li and then wanders off into farmlands. For some kilometres, the only sign of life are water buffalo, listlessly pulling at the grass on the side of the road, or wallowing in deep gullies of muddy water between the rice fields that line the way. Not another soul.
Everyone must be having a siesta, which seems a pretty good idea to me as we pedal slowly on with frequent stops for drinks of tepid water.
We ride through little hamlets of not more than ten houses on either side of the road, shaded by enormous old trees. In one, there is a beautiful stone community hall, over 800 years old, with carved lintels and doorframes and delicately tipped eaves in the old style. It’s been stripped of its doors and is used as a straw barn. In every village we hear the slam of mah-jong tablets from behind shuttered windows, proving that not everyone is asleep. Every now and then we hear a radio, playing Chinese opera in a high, tinny wail, or Canto-pop.
Later in the afternoon the country comes to life and we see women, dressed alike in black pedal pushers, straw hats and plastic thongs, balancing loosely woven bamboo baskets on poles across their shoulders. Most of them are carrying vegetables or fruit but one has her toddler on one side and some pumpkins on the other, in perfect balance.
Finally the heat gets too much and when we see the River Li come into view again, we freewheel down a rutted path through the rice fields and hurl ourselves onto the grassy bank under a walnut tree.
There is absolute silence except for the buzz of insects and we could easily fall asleep. Suddenly a huffing and snorting break the silence, and just in front of us we see six water buffalo up to their necks in water. Their minder, a boy of about ten, smiles shyly at us and walks downriver a bit.
Which is just as well. Piet and I strip off and join the animals in water-buffalo heaven. Their liquid brown eyes observe us placidly and they let us come right up to them and ride on their backs – not quite Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees, but we feel oddly privileged.
At dusk, we cycle wearily into Yangshuo across the long stone bridge. The double story buildings, hotels and little factories come into view and as we get closer we hear the familiar noise of scooters and motorbikes with karaoke music belting out from several shops.
We’re back in civilization.